From DNF to CR: Garmin Epic and Pinnacle Ridge Extreme
I always find it interesting how quickly I can go from a poor performance to running well again, and believe there are important lessons to be learnt from this. Last year I ran my worst Skyrunning World Series race (14th) at Matterhorn Ultraks shortly before my best performance (2nd) at Hochkonig. Last weekend I DNF’d at Garmin Epic Trail, and yet a week later I finished first and set a course record at Pinnacle Ridge Extreme.
Of course a UK race and a world series race aren't directly comparable, but the change in my performance was noticeable. Though the improvement in my results over the week is clear what was even more important to me was how I felt whilst running: PRE was the first time this year that I’ve felt strong, flowy and fast.
So why this sudden and drastic change in performance?
There are a few reasons behind the shift, and none of them are groundbreaking. They’re all reasons which would seem glaringly obvious if I was advising another runner, but are easy to overlook when you’re evaluating yourself. My performances can be easily attributed to my preparation. Not preparation in terms of training, but preparing in terms of taking care of myself. I’m guilty of trying to do too much and wearing myself down in life. The week before Garmin Epic was the perfect example of that.
The week before I DNF’d in Spain I ran another world series race in Canada. Racing back to back weekends is never going to get your best performances out of you, but it can go well still and lead to decent results. What I forgot to take into account, however, was the effect of travel. I left Crowsnest Pass, Canada on Sunday afternoon and eventually arrived in the Pyrenees the Thursday evening.. it was a long four days. I’ve since heard that Swedish research has shown a travel day to have the same effect on the body as a race.
Four days of constant travelling results in sleep loss, poor eating, dehydration, and general stress. Every day that week my watch buzzed, told me I was stressed, and instructed me to start meditating - despite never activating this feature before! I did not meditate, and it only served to make me more stressed about how stressed I was! Add to this a night of no sleep on a particularly uncomfortable red eye, lugging my 20kg bag across the world, and the time difference… by the time I got to Spain I was a wreck!
The day before the race I went for an easy 5km shake out run, but had to stop and sit down after 2km. I simply had nothing in me. The Thursday evening and Friday I tried to eat and sleep as much as I possibly could, desperately hoping that 36 hours would be enough time to recover. When race day came round I felt surprisingly fresh and hoped I might be able to pull an ok performance out the bag. The lack of running in the last week (one 9k jog before my flight in Calgary) meant that my legs felt springy in my warm up and the opening km of the race. Unfortunately, this led me to feel falsely confident and though I started the race strong after ten minutes I began to feel terrible.
This continued for the entirety of the first climb (15km, 1,800m). I slogged up the hill feeling heavy and miserable. I dropped from a podium spot to outside the top ten, and with the men’s race starting 15 minutes after us I was soon being overtaken by them too. Now I was demoralised as well as physically tired, and in my state of exhaustion I didn’t have the mental strength to pick myself up.
‘Still’, I thought, ‘once we get up this hill I’ll be able to run the ridge and the downhill’. This carrot on a stick kept me going, but once the climb ended I felt no better. I was still struggling to run and the terrain was slightly more technical than I’d been expecting. Compared to most races the trail was smooth and runnable, but in my tiredness every rock and bump felt like a mountain in itself.
I was making slow progress and realised I was so far back off the front that the Skyrunning film crew had left the course before I even got there. My morale crumbled, I sat down, texted my boyfriend, and had a good cry.
Normally if I’m having a bad race I can look around at my surroundings and appreciate my luck in spending time somewhere special. This time, I sat down, looked at the mountains, and thought ‘those are great, but I want to be in the valley eating ice cream and looking at them!’.
I decided to drop out at the next aid station, but it is such a difficult decision to make that when I got there I staggered through and started the next climb. One kilometre later, however, I realised it was futile. I was exhausted, and I wasn’t having fun. I considered continuing just to get a long training run in, but the way I was feeling it just didn’t seem worth it. Realising that I wasn’t having fun was the main factor in my DNF though. Skyrunning is a ridiculous and an amazing sport; I get to spend my life travelling the world and exploring mountains. If I get to the point where that is no longer fun then something is clearly wrong.
After my DNF in Spain I took a couple of days off and returned to the UK. I slept 12 hours a night for the first four nights. I ate good, home-cooked meals. I stretched, I cross-trained, and I relaxed. Mentally and physically it did me a world of good just to be home. Once I had rested, eaten and slept my urge to run came flooding back. I told myself the race that weekend was just a run with no pressure to perform well and put in a full training week: 100km of running, 2 hard sessions, 65km on the gravel bike, walking and strength.
I travelled to the Lakes a couple of days ahead of Pinnacle Ridge Extreme to do some work with Rab, hang out with teammates, and spend hours speculating about race day weather. By the time race day came around I felt relaxed and refreshed, despite my increased training load. I spent 25 minutes of the 45 minutes before the race looking for my lost van keys, and as such had no time to stress out. Furthermore, having told myself and everyone else that I was there for a good training run I felt absolutely no pressure to have a good race. I was there to do some fun scrambling, hang out with the Rab team, and enjoy the sunshine.
With the pressure off as soon as the race started I felt good! For the first time this season I had a race where running felt easy and pushing hard was fun rather than painful.
I paced the opening km well and felt strong as another runner and I ground our way up a long gravel climb. The only problem was that it was the wrong gravel climb. With my head down I’d accidentally led another runner off course around 5km into the race. We quickly backtracked and worked our way through the runners, but we’d run an extra 3km and lost about 20 minutes.
Opposite to the previous week, when I spent the race being overtaken by other runners, it was hugely motivated to be passing people and fighting to get back into position. I had only myself to blame for the mistake, and was willing to work hard to make up for it. Just before Brown Cove Crags I caught up with a teammate who told me the first lady was only a little ahead. I caught her at the foot of the scramble and was able to pass her about half way up. All race the scrambling felt smooth and easy, and once I topped out I had the energy to push up the remainder of the climb to Helvellyn.
From Brown Cove Crags onwards the course is technical, beautiful, and a lot of fun. The rest of the race was a mixture of rocky ridges, quick feet descending, and jumping in every available river to combat the heat. The last climb up to Pinnacle Ridge is incredibly steep, but I’d paced myself well and gained a place on the climb. Though the legs were wobbly by now and the scramble didn’t feel as easy as earlier ones, I was moving steadily. ‘Just keep moving at this pace and you’ll be back soon’, I reminded myself.
The last descent is mostly a nice gradient and very runnable, with some trademark Sproson off-trail spanners. As I got within a few km of the finish line I tried to push for a time under five hours, but couldn’t quite get there. Still, after the disastrous downhill of the week before it was a huge confidence boost to be moving well down technical terrain. A good reminder that I can actually run, I just need to have eaten and slept to do it!
I was very happy to finish in first place, 5th overall, and to take 28 minutes off the course record. Even more than that, I was thrilled to feel myself out on a race course again. I don’t expect every race this season to go smoothly, but I now know that they might. That’s enough to keep me chasing that feeling.
Next race is Skyrace Comapedrosa on 31st July. I've spent my in between time with friends, celebrating my birthday, and continuing to build training after a delay start to the season.